Seeking Refuge

A few weeks ago I worked with NY-based Nepali journalist Kashish Das Shrestha on a piece about Bhutanese families who resettled to Canada from refugee camps in Nepal. Since fleeing ethnic persecution in the early nineties, more than 100,000 Bhutanese have been living in the Nepali camps with little hope of returning home. Starting in 2007, more than 30,000 were resettled in third countries such as the United States, Australia, Canada, Norway, New Zealand, Denmark and The Netherlands. Shrestha has documented displaced Bhutanese since 2008, both in the Nepali camps and abroad. ­­For this piece, we spoke to families who have started their new lives in St. Jerome, Quebec and Ottawa, Ontario.

I feel lucky that this particular project came along. Until relatively recently, I had very little exposure to the experience of global refugees, asylum seekers and the supposedly interim camps into which many are placed, or even born. I knew little about Canada’s approach to refugees showing up at our borders – save the myth around which we pride ourselves as a nation of sanctuary and multiculturalism.

It was my year working in Sudan that brought these issues strongly to the forefront of my mind, although my job was not specifically related to refugees. My job in Sudan was to mentor local journalists and help develop a network of community radio stations in some of the most isolated and undeveloped areas of the country’s south as well as portions near the contested north-south border.

When I first arrived there, the southern region was in a moment of relative peace, but its history is heavily consumed with protracted civil wars, hunger, and suffering – a chaos confounded by a pervasive colonial legacy that lingers post-independence. In 1983, ongoing tensions between Sudan’s central government and the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) sparked more than 20 years of civil war, resulting in roughly two million deaths and one of the largest and most grueling migrations of refugees imaginable. It is estimated that four million people were displaced after violence and hunger forced them to flee their villages, and in many cases, the country.

Uprooted with no place to call home, for many the refugee experience was the norm.

This had once been the case for Musa John. Of all the people I worked with in Sudan, the day I met him will always stand out in my mind. He was introduced to me not as Musa, but as Mosquito, a name he picked up on a portion of his journey to Kenya’s infamous Kakuma refugee camp. Set up by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Kakuma (whose translation from Swahili aptly means “nowhere,”) is a squalid sprawl of huts that from 1992 onward took in thousands of displaced Sudanese fleeing the war. Transported to the camp on a crowded bus in 1993, the slender Musa was forced to sit crouched on his friends’ legs, perched atop the other young boys like a small fly; a mosquito.

Hunger and a lack of freedom defined Mosquito’s time at Kakuma. After seven years of life within the camp’s confines, he eventually returned home to Sudan’s sprawling Nuba Mountains where he has become a familiar voice on the local radio station. He was the first person to meet me at the airstrip when I arrived there to give a reporting workshop. After shaking my hand and smiling, he motioned toward two other journalists from the station to come introduce themselves. “You’ve heard of the Lost Boys?” he asked me – a seemingly casual reference to the generation of young Sudanese boys and girls forced to walk for days in an attempt to escape the bloodshed of war. “We are them,” he said.


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